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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

@GoogleHotPot:The Evolution of Search, Social Media, and Community

I've been mulling over this topic on and off for the last couple of months. Google HotPot made it's debut recently, and there are many more issues to discuss in this post.

Isn't everything social media these days?  If it is online and you can have "friends," it must be social media.  Simon Salt and I have debated (friendly, of course because we're both friendly) about this issue and Yelp.  We both run around in similar circles, and we both use similar tools. But we view them in different ways.  *My opinions are well, my opinions, and they do not reflect on any of the Yelp community managers or users. **I don't work for Google, Yelp, or any other like website.

Side 1: Yelp is social media.  You can add friends. You can meet people who become your friends.  You can send messages to your friends.  It must be social.

Side 2: Yelp is crowd sourced content. People write reviews, and they sort through reviews.  Though Yelp has a community in select cities, those are free-standing and created after content starts to come in.

I used to be on side 2.  Simon was on side 1. Yelp is full of reviews that come from people who want to voice their opinions.  Those opinions are combined into a star rating.  That is the quick and dirty of it.

However,a deeper look into why Yelp was leaps and bounds ahead of similar sites like Chowhounds or Urbanspoon was because they had a community.  They built communities after there was enough momentum by hiring an official community manager (to keep the peace and to put on parties) and started the Elite badging system.  Having been in two separate Yelp communities (Houston and Austin) and attending a Yelp Elite event in San Francisco, I could easily see that each community has a distinct demographic, personality, and dynamics.  You might have remembered my post about the destruction of the Austin Yelp Community by de-eliting Michelle C.   Since then, the communities have worsened in my opinion.  Long-time users began to fade away, the speed of reviews posted seemed to slow, and the talk threads because much less active.  During the 2011 eliting week, threads like this one and this one brought about heated conversations.  Anyone who crossed Yelp, created problems for Yelp, or  voiced their opinions louder than Yelp did not have their elite status renewed. 

I was one of those people who did not have their 2011 elite badge, and I was surprised at first.  At SXSW 2010, I spoke at a core convesation with Addie Broyles about how review sites were changing the restaurant review landscape.  As Yelp was just slapped with lawsuits, it quickly became Yelp-centric.  I stood up for the Yelp community (the users), and I gave my unbiased opinion about Yelp's role in the restaurant reviews.  I still think that they had a genius model.  Before community became a buzzword, they were building them.  Yelp was one of the first websites that hosted in person meet ups.  I wish I had thought of that and executed as well as they did.  Anyways, after my post about how they were destroying the community and my voice in the social media world, Yelp was displeased and did not renew my elite status as well.  They didn't give my the axe after the blog post, when I was expecting it.  They waited four months later.  That portion of Yelp's Corporate email to me read:

"We also understand that you are a social media consultant. Though not technically a business owner, there is an inherent conflict of interest with being Yelp elite and a social media consultant. Per the above, unfortunately we are unable to welcome you back to the Elite Squad at this time."  
I'm putting that on all my future resumes.  :o)  It's kind of flattering that an individual that has my own consulting service on the side would be a conflict of interest with a giant website. 

You might be asking yourself, "Who cares about the community?  I don't care about those people, I just want to see the ratings."  And you're absolutely right in asking.  I don't think Yelp is going to fold just because the communities are less loyal, less active, but I know that I'm going to shift how I categorize Yelp.  Yelp to me is turning into a search tool, a very useful one at that.  I frequently listen and read Jason Calicanus and Fred Wilson's blogs and podcast, and both of them use Yelp (mobile too).  But I've never heard or read of Jason or Fred commenting about feeling right at home with the Yelp community.  Most of the comments are about the search features.  I too really like the search feature on Yelp mobile.  I can drive into a new location, hit find close to me button, and start weeding it through.  However, one time late at night, Yelp recommended that I get dinner at the Yellow Rose, the gentlemen's club.  I declined that recommendation.  The numbers geek inside me really likes that you can get more data.  While there is more noise in Yelp data (variability in reviews), if I didn't know the source, I would rather look at the reviews of 100 people instead of 5 people.  Statistically, more reviews are more favorable.

I'll update my views of Yelp.  It isn't crowd-sourced content driven by a strong community anymore.  Honestly, who is going to join a community just to find out where to eat a taco?  Now that a particular threshold of content already exists (at least in Austin and other larger cities), Yelp is a great search tool.  I use Yelp to collaborate with my friend's recommendations, and I often read reviews to see what dishes are extra tasty (or not).

The Evolution of Search : GoogleHotPot

Search is great, and who is the typical suspect in search?  Google.  Google recently launched their HotPot product that could throw a wrench into the current review sites.  I listened to the This Week in Startups podcast with Lior Ron (the product developer of GoogleHotPot) several times.  Lior Ron describes HotPot as the evolution of search, making search personalized and socially relevant - almost like a Netflix or Pandora for places.  I would add that there's an even more social aspect to this type of search.

A different type of community.
Even though GoogleHotPot is a search, there are still community components to it.  Google users have friends.  You can share information with your friends and you can read information posted by your friends.  The community is already there, and users are sharing the information with each other which is similar to a social media tool.  Yelp on the other hand, tried to nurture a community by bringing together users to contribute content.  Sure, there is a community, but that community didn't exist without the Yelp platform.  The Yelp community was created after the platform was available.  I view GoogleHotPot as giving a community a tool, and Yelp built a community on a platform. 

You can watch/listen to TWIST episode with Lior Ron here.

What can GoogleHotPot do for users? 

1. You wouldn't have to go to multiple review sites (Yelp, Chow, UrbanSpoon) to see reviews.  GoogleHotPot collects the ratings and shows it to you in a pretty box.

2. You can start to personalize the searches, and thusly improve recommendations.  Every time you rate a place, Google starts to learn what you like and don't like, and thusly adjusting recommendations to you.  I've asked Yelp about this several times to no avail.  I wanted a tool where Yelp would discard reviews from people who did not share the same taste preferences or styles of food as well.  From a data perspective, their ratings and reviews would be ignored by me anyways.

3. You are already in your community.  Since GoogleHotPot is on your Google profile, it is easy to add friends that are already in your email box.  No need to join a new community or to start one.  You already have your community of friends that you can add to your GoogleHotPot.  I have just shy of a quajillion contacts on Google.  I already know these people, and I already communicate with them.

What can GoogleHotPot do for businesses?

1. Your business shows up on Google.  They don't adjust or change your rankings, but you get to highlight when you are on Google.  With Yelp, you have to hope that Yelp's SEO will get your Yelp page ranked high on the first page.  And well, Yelp business pages aren't getting as high as they used to.  There were some Yelp business pages that I couldn't find on Google.  However, Yelp talk threads are still highly ranked. Like really highly ranked.

2. Information that Google gives business owners for free:
  • Update your details, phone number, address, hours, photos, or special announcements.
  • Business intelligence and insights via a dashboard.
  • Where are people coming from (physically)?
  • What queries are people searching to find you?
  • Impressions (and mobile impressions)
  • User behavior on your Google Places
3. The ability to add tags to highlight your business when it shows up in Google.  The fee to for the tags is only $25 per month.  That is very affordable, even to small businesses. You add tags to enhance:
  • Photos of your business
  • Videos of your business
  • Coupons for your listing
  • Menu for your restaurant
  • Reservations page for your business
  • Posts for your business
Other benefits are:
  • Easily and inexpensively highlight your listing on Google from Google Places.
  • Potential customers in your local area will see what you think is most important or unique about your business.
  • Track the effectiveness of your tag with your Google Places dashboard.
  • There is no additional work or ongoing management is needed.
3. Boost, which is like Google adwords.  I can tell you from experience that the Boost is effective on mobile devices.  I once searched for a business by name, and all the similar businesses who had Boost showed up on my Google Map.  The actual business I was searching did not.  That can be a very practical way for businesses to edge out the competition in the mobile space.

What's in the future? 
I can't tell you how GoogleHotPot will pan out.  To be honest, Google has had their fair share of failed products like Wave and Buzz.  However, unlike HotPot, Wave and Buzz relied entirely on people to talk to each other using Google tools.  GoogleHotPot is capitalizing on content that already exists.  That might make or break this new product.  After attending the Launch Conference, I also saw that new tools that were quoted to be like the "Netflix of _________."  Whether or not GoogleHotPot takes off, it is pretty obvious that search is evolving.  
You might wonder why I've made such a big deal about GoogleHotPot, I kind of love Chinese hot pot.  That's my comfort food, one of them anyways. 

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